Helping Native Americans Reclaim Their Lands

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it. Chief Red Cloud

A Brief History: Over 500 treaties were made with American Indian tribes, primarily for land cessations, dating back to the first treaty signed on September 17, 1778 at Fort Pitt, present day Pittsburgh. Treaties helped American expand its territory for various reasons. They ended up being broken, nullified or changed whenever it suited the government’s interest.

In 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act which created the Indian reservation system and further reduced American Indian lands by moving them onto reservations while white settlers continued to take over their land. The1887 Dawes General Allotment Act passed had a devasting effect on tribes. It allowed the government to divide reservations into small plots of land for individual Indians with the goal of assimilation into white culture.

The Act decreased the land owned by Indians by more than half and opened even more land to white settlers and railroads. Much of the reservation land wasn’t good farmland, and many Indians couldn’t afford the supplies needed to reap a harvest. Indian land holdings plunged from 138 million acres to 48 million acres by 1934 when allotment ended.

Fast forward to this century.

Each year President Obama was in office, he engaged in a conference held on different reservations that focused on a variety of concerns, which resulted in actions. He was given credit by tribal leaders for creating a White House council to maintain lines of communication with them; establishing a buyback program to help tribes regain scattered lands; expanding the jurisdiction of tribal courts; and including tribal women under the protection of the Violence Against Women law in 2013.

In 2009, the Obama Administration announced a $3.4 billion settlement of a class-action suit filed against the Interior Department by tribal leaders who claimed that for more than a century the government had mismanaged their property that was being held in trust by the federal government. In one of the largest financial settlements made to American Indian tribes, the federal government ended dozens of lawsuits by agreeing to pay more than $1 billion to 41 tribes because the Interior and Treasury Departments had failed to adequately oversee companies that exploited a wide variety of resources, including minerals, timber, oil and gas on their lands dating back more than 100 years in some cases.

In addition, the settlement provided $1.9 billion for a Land Buy-Back Program to give individual Native American landowners an opportunity to help address the problem of fractionation caused by the allotments of the Dawes Act. Fractionation resulted in tracts of land (allotments) passing to numerous heirs over generations with many allotments having hundreds and even thousands of individual owners. This divided ownership made it difficult, if not impossible, to use the land for any beneficial purpose.  In order to make decisions regarding the use of a given tract of fractionated land, a required percentage of the individual owners had to consent to the decision.  As a result, fractionated allotments often lay idle rather than being utilized for agricultural, recreational, cultural, commercial, or even residential purposes. 

At the start of the Buy Back Program, there were approximately 150 reservations with 2.9 million purchasable fractional interests owned by approximately 243,000 individuals. As of February 2019, the whereabouts of only 10.9 percent of these individuals were unknow

Native American Companies Form to Address Indian Land Issues

Despite popular belief, only a small number of Indian nations and Indian people have benefited substantially from casino revenues. Several Native American Companies have been formed to address Indian land issues and help with land recovery financially and legally.

Indian Land Capital Company (ILCC) was created in 2005 as a partnership between Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) and the Native American Community Development Corporation (NACDC) to provide financing to Native nations for land acquisition on a full-faith-and-credit basis. ILCC is a for profit organization and certified Native American Community Development Finance Institution (CDFI) that has made more than $18 million in loans to Native nations without a single default or significant delinquency. 

ILCC lending successes include: (1)  the recovery of nearly 700 acres by the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians in Sonoma County, CA, so they once again have access to the ocean; (2) the purchase of 311 acre farm adjacent to the boundaries of the Odawa Indian reservation in Michigan to be used as a certified organic farm to support the subsistence and nutritional needs of tribal members, as well as a potential source of income; (3) the purchase to recover 22,237 acres by the Yurok Tribe in California to become a community forest where the tribe uses a sustainable forestry management approach that protects salmon, improves water quality and enables the Yurok to generate substantial revenue in California’s carbon credit market.

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) is a national, community-based organization established to serve “American Indian nations and people in the recovery and control of their rightful homelands.” In 2017, ILTF supported the Rock Creek Buffalo Project on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. In the 19th century, more than 50 million buffalo were deliberately destroyed in order to starve Native people onto reservations, resulting in dire poverty and ill health. This project is an effort to grow back the buffalo by providing resources like fencing to contain at least 100 members of the herd. It also offers job training, employment opportunities and youth programs to explore a future in buffalo ranching

Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) is a non-profit law and advocacy organization established and directed by American Indians te provide legal assistance to Indian and Alaska Native nations who are working to protect their lands, resources, human rights, environment and cultural heritage.

The successes of the Center include the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was originally drafted by the Center and the convening of the first ever UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to share perspectives and best practices on the making the rights of indigenous peoples a reality.  Domestically, ILRC has helped Alaska Native nations and villages expand their legal and technical capacity to protect and clean up their lands and waters.  Watershed protection is a critical issue for Native peoples in Alaska because the rivers are often essential for subsistence livelihoods and traditions.

Congressional Representation for Cherokee Nation

Kim Teehee, unanimously approved ty the Council of the Cherokee Nation, is poised to become the tribe’s first-ever delegate to the House of Representatives. This appointment is embedded in the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, which was ratified by Congress and never abrogated. According to Chief Chuck Hoskins, there is bi-partisan support for this appointment and discussions are taking place on the delegate s responsibilities and rights once she is seated.

A priority of the Cherokee Nation is to make the federal funding for its programs like food stamps mandatory instead of discretionary, which, depending on the political dynamics in Congress, may be reduced in any given year.  Delegate Teehee would be entitled to membership in committees. She could vote in committees, introduce legislation and speak on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Truth & Reconciliation in Maine

The Maine Wabanski-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission led a truth-seeking process from February 2013 to June 2015 to uncover the truth about state agencies’ child-welfare involvement with Maine’s Native people. The Commission and its staff traveled thougsands of miles ot the villages and communities to hear people’s testimonies. They reviewed state documents and interviewed over 150 people. They sought to create opportunities for people to heal andlearn from what they discovered. The Commission’s Report can be found here.  The documentary, Dawnland, produced in 2018 also covers the commission and its work.

If you believe more needs to be done to address the history of Native American land theft, please consider supporting the Native American led organizations that are working on this issue and advocating the seating of the Cherokee Nation Delegate in the House of Representatives.

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